Thais are a very tolerant people when it comes to behavior of travelers. However, there are a few things which are not easily overlooked. Important aspects to observe and be aware of are:
The Royal Family
The King and the Royal Family are highly revered in Thailand. Not only is it cross-culturally insensitive to criticize any member of the royal family (and there are many members) or their actions, it is against the law. Never speak derogatorily or joke about the Royal family in front of strangers.
Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand, and orange-robed monks and gold, marble and stone Buddhas are common sights. The prevalent form of Buddhism is the Theravada school, which emphasizes the potential of the individual to attain nirvana without the aid of saints or gurus.
Visitors should dress neatly in all religious shrines. They should never go shirtless, or in shorts, singlet’s or other unsuitable attire. When you go into a temple area and wat, you should take your shoes off at the designated point. Look for the place just outside the doors where there are lines of shoes, often on a rack. Step over not on the raised threshold of the temple doors. There is a belief that this threshold keeps out evil spirits. By stepping on it you facilitate the spirits entrance into the temple. When you kneel in front of a Buddha figure, never point the bottoms of your feet towards the altar. Observe how Thais sit when they are honoring the Buddha and follow suit. Everyone is welcome in a temple area and there are often many interesting things going on.
Each Buddha image, large or small, damaged or new, is regarded as a sacred object. Never climb onto one to take a photograph or do anything which might indicate a lack of respect.
When in the temple area, on the street, or in a river taxi, women should remember not to touch the saffron-robed monks. This is to avoid exposing the monk to any source of distraction. If you are in conversation with a monk - some like to practice their English with foreigners - and you’d like to give him your card or address, place the item on another surface for him to pick up or hand to your male colleague to pass along.
Thais don’t normally shake hands when they greet one another, but instead press the palms together in a prayer-like gesture called a wai. The protocol of waing is one in which foreigners are always intrigued and confused. It is such a graceful, respectful gesture, others want to know when and how to do it correctly. As a foreigner you will not be expected to wai, but learning to do this will make you feel more culturally aware and Thais will appreciate this effort.
The general “rules” are to wai someone who is older and/or of a higher rank, and returning a wai someone makes to you. As an exchange student this may seem like everyone with which you come in contact! The best way to learn about when and how to wai is observe, to question and emulate your peers.
The Spirit Houses
Every Thai house or building has to have a spirit house to go with it – a place for a spirit of the site, or Phra Phum, to live in. Without this vital structure you’re likely to have the spirits living with you, which can cause all sort of trouble. A spirit house looks rather like a birdhouse – sized Thai temple mounted on a pedestal – at least your average spirit house does. The interior of the spirit house is usually decorated with ceramic or plastic figurines representing the property’s guardian spirits.
An abandoned or damaged spirit house can’t simply be tossed aside like a broken appliance, left to rot or dismantled for firewood. Instead, it should be deposited against the base of a sacred banyan tree or in the corner of a sympathetic wat where benevolent spirits will watch over it.
Do not put your feet up on the desk. It is considered very rude. As well, do not point at anything with your feet.
Services in Bangkok are inexpensive compared to developed countries. It is not necessary here to tip taxi drivers, hairdressers, and others, but always appreciated. However, it is customary to leave a small tip in nice restaurants, about 10-20B. Many restaurants include a 10% service charge but you should check the bill.